Back to Star Wars, Hard

The true Star Wars faithful gathered for Celebration in Chicago over this weekend. I was not one of them. Yet the trailer for The Rise of Skywalker was enough to light the fire in my heart once more. It never really goes it. Sometimes, it settles to embers, but there’s always been something to reignite it.

So while I was not in Chicago, I still had a weekend that was overly devoted to Star Wars. After seeing the trailer at work on Friday, I struggled to stay focused on anything other than Star Wars, and I watched Return of the Jedi when I got home (between the second Death Star and Palpatine, it was Episode VI that the new trailer most put into my mind). I’d already been reading the Ahsoka novel, so I read some more of that. I dived back into Battlefront II and Empire at War. And now I’m writing a post about Star Wars again.

That trailer looks so good to me! There are so many mysteries, and I’m eager to see it. Experience has shown that I’m more excited for new saga films over anything else in the franchise, and the trailers for these movies are always great. Each time, it takes at least the first teaser to get me to finally acknowledge how excited I am. I’d actually been saying last week or so that I felt like The Last Jedi felt like a fair conclusion to the sequel trilogy and would have been an acceptable place to end the saga, so while I was curious to see what they’d do, I didn’t feel like anything was missing or unjustifiably incomplete. Now, though, there are so many tantalizing details, and I’m really eager to see what kind of story is being told here!

The other Star Wars announcements mattered less to me, as usual. I’ll probably get to much, though not all, of the new stuff eventually. The Jedi: Fallen Order game looks disappointing to me. I think there are already enough stories about Jedi on the run during the Dark Times, and the trailer felt very much so like a Light Side version of The Force Unleashed, a game I didn’t really get into at the time. And the protagonist appears to be another bland white dude. That all said, I’m sort of starved for a narrative-focused Star Wars game, and while I’d prefer an RPG, I’ll take this! Which means…maybe I’ll be looking into another console sooner than I thought? I love the Switch and Switch games, but it’d be nice to play more of the Star Wars games coming out. If I do get another console, it’ll probably be a PS4. I’m more interested in the exclusive titles available there versus the Xbox One.

Oh, speaking of Star Wars RPGs, VG247 had an article about Obsidian Entertainment’s planned plot for Knights of the Old Republic III. I really wish that game had happened. The Old Republic was reasonably fun, but I’ve never cared for MMOs and have always preferred single-player experiences. A mark in Fallen Order‘s favor is that Chris Avellone, formerly Obsidian writer for games like KOTOR II, is one of the writers for this new game.

Last thing I want to get to: I played a shocking amount of Empire at War this weekend and finally beat the Rebellion campaign. Yes, it was on Easy, but now I can mark both of the main campaign modes on my list of completed adventures (it was years ago, but I’m pretty sure I won the Empire campaign on Easy too). I mostly had fun, and I just pushed through the point I normally get burnt out. The gameplay just doesn’t mesh with the Rebellion-on-the-run feel that the setting, and the game’s story, establishes. But I’ve complained about that before. (Although I could complain now about some story issues I had, mostly related to the larger continuity. Just for instance, this came out after Revenge of the Sith and benefited from the expanded lore and setting of that film, but it didn’t include Bail Organa in the formative rebellion in any substantial way, and it had Captain Antilles affiliated with Mon Mothma instead of Bail for some reason, switching over to the Tantive IV only towards the end of the game.)

There is, however, something very interesting thing that the game did: after Alderaan’s destruction, the Death Star immediately set course for Yavin IV. I barely got Mon Mothma out in time. I defeated the Death Star’s support fleet, but with no Red Squadron, I still lost the moon. The Death Star then destroyed Wayland (a planet I’d conquered after the early story mission, because why not, and which I successfully defended from a later invasion attempt). Finally, Han showed back up with Luke and the droids, and I could send a sizable fleet to win the battle and leave the Death Star’s destruction to Luke. That final fight played out in the stellar wreckage of Wayland. There are three reasons why I like those developments:

  1. Everything happening is so sudden, shocking, and unpredictable. It puts you in the mindset of the fledgling Rebel Alliance as it faces potential devastation, with no obvious way out. I expected Luke to show up, I expected a warning before the Alderaan destruction cinematic, I expected the game to be predictable and give me time like it had at every other stage. I couldn’t rely on convention or the film’s narrative. It made me feel a little anxious and desperate, then really relieved when Luke finally showed up.
  2. It clearly established this narrative as an Alternate Universe. Sure, this was before the canon reset, but the implication up until that point is that we might have been playing a game that was supposed to be telling a definitive story of the Rebellion. Even if we had to ignore the gameplay and the narrative-defying conquest of the galaxy in the name of the Rebels, the core story being told could be seen as “truth.” The ending relaxes those rules and says, no, this is just a fun story, hope you enjoyed playing with the toys. Any galactic conquest mode to follow is more playing in the sandbox, no more or less “true.”
  3. It actually disrupted the conquest-focused gameplay and returned the emphasis to Rebels barely staying a step ahead of an over-powerful Empire. Too bad the rest of the game isn’t like that…

That’s more than enough about that game, but before I drop the subject entirely, let me quickly show you a story in four images:

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Now, will I ever play the Forces of Corruption campaign? Maybe. More unlikely things have happened (like finishing the Rebellion campaign), and my Star Wars appetite is currently insatiable and probably will remain so through December!

TCW Re-watch: Failings of the Jedi

Star Wars: The Clone Wars offered such a rich variety of stories that there are an endless array of lenses to approach the themes within the series, both those unique to it and those that elaborate on the subject matter of George Lucas’s six-film saga. I’ve gone into this re-watch with a few particular themes and contradictions on my mind, and the most current reviewed episode, “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” (1.18), touches on most of them.

Most interesting to me is the tension between the apparent necessity of the war in the moment in contrast to the audience’s foreknowledge that the Jedi’s mere entry into the war was the trap that doomed them. This narrative emerges clearly enough in the films with the end of Attack of the Clones, with Yoda’s admonition that “the shroud of the Dark Side has fallen.” Perhaps more subtly, that theme is present in the decision on the part of the Jedi and the Republic to assault a Separatist planet in the midst of heightened political tensions to rescue two Jedi and a Senator who had infiltrated that independent system to perform acts of political espionage, sabotage, and murder, and who were being punished under the laws of that system. While leaving the trio to execution would have been an unacceptable ending to audiences and would have seemed too merciless, and while viewers know that the Separatists were preparing their own attack on the Republic, interfering with the laws of another government via open invasion is a shockingly imperialistic act for a group of alleged peacekeepers. And, of course, that theme of loss merely through engagement sees fruition in the collapse of the Jedi and the Republic in Revenge of the Sith.

The Clone Wars readily acknowledges this burden. Yoda does a lot of wrangling with this moral crisis and imminent loss throughout the series. While that’s perhaps most emphasized in the final season’s episodes, the theme is present in moments with Yoda–and in merely observing what the war does to Jedi and clones alike–throughout the show. As Yoda says in “Lair of Grievous” (1.10), “To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is of losing who we are.”

And this theme manifests in at least small ways in almost every episode. Returning to “Mystery of a Thousand Moons,” we see the Jedi once again putting innocents in harm’s way in an attempt to win a battle. In this case, Ahsoka, Padme, and several clone troopers are infected with a super-virus and almost die before Anakin and Obi-Wan can provide a cure. Padme’s a senator. Ahsoka is literally a child who is nonetheless invested with the powers of a military commander. And the clones have been manufactured to fight and–as Rex notes in the episode–to die, yet the Jedi were perfectly willing to enlist them and use them as though they lacked in personhood or choice (a damning decision no matter how many Jedi befriended them between battles).

Yet that super-virus is another example of the seeming necessity of the war. The recreation of the Blue Shadow Virus for biological war in “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” and in the virus’s eponymous episode (1.17) is a shocking atrocity, intended to quickly wipe out whole ecosystems on hundreds of planets. In the same arc, the Separatists have blockaded a planet with a force field that kills anyone who tries to leave orbit, seemingly with the intent of preventing the export of the one raw material that can be used to produce a cure to the virus. Similarly, in “Defenders of Peace” (1.14), the Separatists intend to test a weapon that wipes out all organic life in its blast radius but leaves droids behind–and their intended target is a village of pacifists. Messaging consistently reinforces a pro-war mentality, at least in the moment. “Defenders of Peace” and its companion “Jedi Crash” (1.13) have no room for pacifists; the ideology is portrayed as too naive to actually survive without outside intervention by occupying defenders. Certainly there are historical precedents where passive resistance or acquiescence have not halted or appeased a bloodthirsty oppressor. Yet, to complicate things further, the “Jedi Crash” arc is immediately followed by “Trespass” (1.15), which actually provides for a scenario in which peaceful diplomacy is the ideal solution in contrast to aggressive interventionism.

If nothing else, the show highlights how messy war and conflict are. Moral solutions are not always apparent. The Jedi, even early on in the show, frequently cross the line of acceptable behavior, but that line-crossing often achieves results. For specific examples, contrast “Cloak of Darkness” (1.9), in which Ahsoka brushes off Master Luminara Unduli’s warning that “terror is not a weapon the Jedi use” because her threat, which does (momentarily) convince an imprisoned Nute Gunray to cooperate, “wasn’t serious,” with Anakin’s threat in “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” to kill mad scientist Nuvo Vindi completely failing to produce results (and actually giving Vindi another opportunity to gloat).

Lastly, one little item of head canon that I’ve been toying with for a while is that some version of the Mandalorian Wars and the subsequent Jedi Civil War of Knights of the Old Republic actually happened, and that this resulted in a radical shift in Jedi dogma. We at least have confirmation of a Mandalorian-Jedi War, but it’s the latter war that’s more significant to me. Revan and Malak rushed off to join the Republic in defeating the Mandalorians, in opposition to the Jedi Order’s mandate to stay out of the war, but their experiences turned them to the Dark Side. Revan’s later redemption was the only thing that could stop Malak, and he went on to pursue a larger threat outside of the galaxy. Other Jedi who went to war did not necessarily fall to the Dark Side. The Jedi Exile, for instance, chose a life of nomadic wandering following her actions at the Battle of Malachor (a battle that has been partially introduced to the canon, as well). Her eventual return to the major events of the galaxy stopped another festering Sith threat, and it is implied that she and her disciples helped rebuild a decimated Jedi Order. (Light Side decisions and their resultant outcomes in video games were typically perceived to be closer to canon during the run of the EU, and even in this canon-reboot era, that assumption seems to me a valid starting point for discussing the state of the old EU lore.)

The implications of the first two games are cast to the wind to enable the direction of The Old Republic and its companion novels, like Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan, which conveniently wiped Revan and the Jedi Exile off the board. I’m not so impressed by the idea of Jedi and Sith joining together to combat a larger threat; it happened surprisingly often in the old EU, it seems counter to the core messaging of Lucas’s films, and it seems like something that exists in Star Wars: The Old Republic largely as a justification for players to join the Sith faction without necessarily being pure evil. So let’s set aside the implications of everything post-KOTOR II.

With that division of the franchise in place, I rather like the idea that Revan, the Jedi Exile, and their followers would have forced a radical rethink in Jedi philosophy. Perhaps the Jedi, over time, would have felt that earlier official involvement by the Jedi Order in curbing the Mandalorian expansion would have stopped a lot of cruelty and death–and would have prevented the rise of the Sith Lords that followed. The Jedi Exile, in particular, would have been a model for a more interventionist Jedi Knight. This change in doctrinal thinking could have resulted in an over-correction that could have made the Jedi all too willing to hop into aggressive pursuit of peacekeeping operations. The reform spirit of the Jedi Exile would have faded into institutional tradition over the centuries, such that the shift in Jedi mindset would have only served as another pillar of dogmatic thought for later generations of Jedi leaders. Such a mindset would have primed them to hop straight into the Clone Wars, before cooler heads (mostly a more reflective Yoda) could prevail, and with the assumption that they were fully in the right. I think The Clone Wars and its depiction of the last years of the Jedi Order provide some ammo for that theory.

(By the way, in my full version of this head canon, which veers hard into amorphously formed fan fiction, Bultar Swan offers a lot of storytelling possibilities as a potential Jedi who quickly sees the entry of the Jedi into the business of war as detrimental. I tend to imagine her getting the hell out of the Order and the war shortly after Geonosis, after seeing just what it takes to kill and seeing the Jedi leadership all too willing to keep going down that path. But that’s getting way off topic for this post.)

I don’t plan on regularly discussing The Clone Wars over the course of this re-watch, but I do suspect that I’ll have an occasional update as this gradual viewing continues. I’ve only watched the show in full once before, and this new trip through has been quite enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Sith Eyes

Guys, I promise, I’ll get over this wave of Star Wars posts eventually. It’s just on my mind a lot right now.

And something I’ve been thinking about is the physical manifestation of the Dark Side. In Revenge of the Sith, when Anakin turns to the Dark Side, his eyes go bloodshot and yellow. His eyes are still stained like this when we see him partially exposed during his fight with Ahsoka in Rebels. When Luke redeems him and removes his helmet, Anakin’s eyes are soft and friendly again.

 

 

Other Dark Siders may have yellow eyes. Darth Maul and Savage Opress both have those tainted yellow eyes. Pong Krell’s eyes are…yellow-ish. And Palpatine’s eyes are the bright yellow of a predatory animal, when he’s not wearing the kindly face of the Chancellor.

 

 

But I don’t think we ever see Count Dooku with anything but those dark eyes of his. Snoke’s eyes are not yellow. Asajj Ventress is known for her ice-blue eyes. And Kylo Ren’s eyes have so far remained a dark color.

 

 

We could say that perhaps the yellow-red eyes are just visual metaphor, signifying corruption, and not meant to be literally present. However, Dark Disciple confirms that the yellow eyes are visibly present, at least to some. When Ventress finds Vos after his corruption under Dooku, she sees that “Vos’s eyes were no longer a warm, rich brown. They were a blood-rimmed shade of yellow” (185). When Ventress briefly gets Vos to calm, the “yellow hue faded from his eyes,” but that “awful yellow hue returned to his eyes” when her entreaties fail and he returns to his impassioned attack (189).

Interestingly, Ventress later finds Vos without the yellowed eyes but knows he is still corrupted because she still feels “the fury inside him now” (209). Vos eventually admits that he had remained loyal to the Dark Side, that Ventress was correct.

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I don’t know if there’s a canon answer as to what causes a Dark Sider’s eyes to yellow. Speculation on Reddit suggests that it is an intense connection to the Dark Side. If so, how would Palpatine not always have those eyes, with his intense Dark Side presence and constant evil hatred and malevolence? I suppose he could mask his face the same way he masked his presence from the Jedi (and this certainly would not be the first time that someone has suggested that Palpatine only revealed his true face after his encounter with Mace Windu, that he was not actually “disfigured” at all then).

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My personal feeling is that the yellow eyes represent a loss of control. A Dark Sider strives to control the Force, but some let the Dark Side ultimately control them. For Palpatine, the Dark Side is a tool. For Anakin, the Dark Side is desperation and anger and confusion and fear all being unloaded at once.

What does that mean for Kylo Ren, though? I see Kylo as perhaps the most unstable Dark Sider yet, prone to violent rages and tantrums. But he has constant conflict in him; maybe he has never fully given himself to the Dark Side.

Or maybe this is just an inconsistent element that changes with the story being told and the creative team telling that story.

I bet that there’s at least a partial canon answer floating around in the minds (and files) of the Lucasfilm Story Group. But we don’t have a full answer yet.

Machete Viewing?

I watched the Star Wars films again over the Thanksgiving break, in anticipation of the release of The Last Jedi. To try to give myself a novel perspective, I decided I’d play with the “machete” viewing order I’ve heard so much about. Now, I believe that normally calls for a viewing of IV, V, II, III, VI, but my goal was to watch all the films, not trim things down. What I settled on was R1/IV double-feature, V, I, II, III, VI, VII. It was in some ways illuminating and made me think about how these movies were conceived and how they are viewed.

I took notes while viewing, and they raised questions that I might probe further at a later date. For now, I just want to briefly talk about my viewing experience as a whole. It won’t be comprehensive or conclusive, but it’s a start.

What most surprised me about my viewing was how dissonant Rogue One and A New Hope actually are. Of course, Rogue One has a darker ending than any other Star Wars film except perhaps Revenge of the Sith, but I was surprised to realize that when watched back-to-back, the films don’t bridge well together even with A New Hope picking up almost exactly where Rogue One left off. One of the biggest elements of discord: Rogue One is specific, whereas A New Hope is mythic.

A New Hope lays out the visual language and storytelling tools used in all the other saga films. We deal with archetypes, not just heroic archetypes or film tropes but in broad principles and institutions. Jedi Knights (whatever they are, exactly) defended the Republic for a thousand generations before the Dark Times, before the Empire. There is a Rebellion against that Empire. There is an Emperor. There was a Senate, but no more. Vader is all menace, seemingly completely removed from the military chain of command. He is almost a force of nature. Contrast with Rogue One, which has all the lore to work with of every film that has come since then. Rogue One shows the specifics of the Rebel Alliance, with political infighting and uncertainty over how to proceed. We see special forces operatives making bad calls. We see something approaching more specific, real organizations. Even Vader is not quite so removed. It’s sort of the nature of the film; where A New Hope is intentionally mythic, Rogue One fills in the details. It’s still bizarre.

Almost as disconcerting to me is how Rogue One seems to only loosely honor the connection to A New Hope. While Vader says he knows that plans were “beamed aboard” the Tantive IV, we know that the transmissions were actually to a capital ship; Vader saw the plans physically handed off to a courier who boarded Leia’s own ship. Leia outright lies to Vader about her purpose even though her crew barely escaped from an active war zone and Vader’s physical presence moments before his arrival. And Vader becomes more and more active and powerful in every new Star Wars installment so that it is curious why he becomes a lead-from-the-rear officer and conservative fencer by the time of the classic trilogy. Nothing is outright contradicted, as far as I can tell. People make mistakes; they lie; they alter the truth. This certainly happens in Star Wars. And Vader maybe has reasons for his varying degrees of displayed power. It’s not ruinous, but it just creates nagging moments of disconnection between the two films.

And while Rogue One adds further urgency and importance to the delivery of the Death Star plans with the lives lost and faint glimmer of hope at the end of this prequel, A New Hope, by way of being a preexisting entity, cannot take advantage of that urgency. The film is a much slower-paced title. The MacGuffin of the Death Star plans only becomes vital to the viewers when we realize that the Rebel base will be destroyed–meaning Leia and 3PO too!–if Luke isn’t able to blow the bad guys up in time. Rogue One’s fast burn dissolves into a slow sizzle. After the opening battle of A New Hope, everything slows.

At the end of the day, Rogue One is a fairly safe film that fills in gaps that don’t really need to be filled in. Its changes in focus and urgency and tone don’t really connect with the feel of the original film. On this re-watch, I appreciated more than ever the questions and dangling threads and implied epic scope of A New Hope. It’s a great film. It doesn’t really need Rogue One, and while I still enjoy R1 for its beautiful planetary vistas and the chemistry in its ensemble cast, I am realizing more and more that it’s simply an unnecessary film.

Unsurprisingly, The Empire Strikes Back remains my favorite film after the viewing. I watched the special editions of the classic trilogy this time, in contrast to the “theatrical” versions that came with the DVD release, and I think that Empire benefits most from the retroactive editing. The wampa cave scene and the Hoth battle scene are improved. And Bespin is just absolutely stunning with the addition of more exterior views. The special edition makes Empire feel bigger. Regardless, this viewing order neither helps nor hurts it.

Jumping back to Episode I was interesting at this point. If you were a new viewer, and you just learned that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, finding this little boy to be Anakin Skywalker would be incredibly jarring. Maybe Vader was lying, you might assume, without the guidance of Return of the Jedi. Maybe Anakin and Vader really are separate people somehow. How could such a sweet boy become Vader? As I recall, many fans of the original films were annoyed by this little, dorky, sweet version of young Anakin. It was an over-share. We don’t need to see Anakin as a child! But I’m thinking about how it would feel to go from V to II, or to live in a world without The Phantom Menace. And frankly, if your first exposure to Anakin is in Episode II, I think you lose something. That Anakin is already tortured by his fear of losing his mother, already tempted by a girl he met years ago, and quick to do very evil things in moments of anger and grief. That Anakin, though whiny, is someone we can immediately believe to be Vader. That even a good person can become evil, that even a seemingly normal person can harbor such great demons or grow into them, is a far more interesting message, and I think I understand more what George Lucas was trying to do with Episode I. There are larger problems with that film–chiefly, the time distance means that Episode I feels more like a prequel to the later two prequel films rather than a part of the trilogy, very little of narrative significance happens in this film since most of Anakin’s personal concerns are established in Episode II again anyway, and the pod race is excessively long and fairly pointless. But Lucas had purpose even if the delivery was flawed.

Watching Episode I after V gave me something to think about. I parallels IV in that it is a happy-go-lucky sort of film with a big explosion at the end and a big celebration after victory; both films inform the later films in their trilogies, but they are somewhat apart from them. If I were coming up with my own viewing order, I would probably remove Rogue One (it’s not a main saga film anyway) and start the viewer with A New Hope followed by The Phantom Menace. A new viewer would interpret Anakin to be Luke’s father without the knowledge that Anakin is Vader. Vader’s absence from The Phantom Menace would be a gnawing tension; where is the future threat? And viewing IV and I back to back shows them as companion pieces, kindred spirits, both about the journeys of Skywalkers. Follow The Phantom Menace up with The Empire Strikes back, to progress Luke’s story further and make the connections between both trilogies explicit; this viewing order also makes a reveal out of both Palpatine’s and Anakin’s true ultimate identities. Now that this darkness in Anakin is revealed, we can jump back to finish up the prequel trilogy…

And finish up the prequel trilogy I did. Maybe for the first time in my life, I somehow found Anakin charming and liked many aspects of his romance with Padme in Attack of the Clones. I don’t know exactly how this happened. I don’t know why it did. I think the new viewing order disrupted my default opinions about the films. Maybe I was able to shift away from popular opinion a little bit. Yes, Anakin can be creepy or intense, but he’s sensitive and caring and a bit of a flirt. Yes, he can be awkward–but in the way that many young men are awkward, for better or worse. This isn’t a flaw; Lucas clearly wants you to view him as awkward, angsty, still growing up. He lingers on Anakin’s flailing moments, plays up shots of others reacting to him, pairs the images with music that drives home the discomfort. It works. I can’t and won’t defend the failures in dialogue present, but I would point out that Lucas has always written fairly artificial and awkward dialogue into the films.

The most frustrating thing about Episode II is still that Anakin murders a whole village of indigenous people and somehow is not already branded as a Dark Sider. You don’t get much more Dark Side than that, no matter how big your anger and grief. No matter how Padme felt about Anakin, it’s also a shocking lack of judgment on her part that she would (a) simply accept Anakin afterward without reprimand and (b) not report Anakin to the authorities. They weren’t even in a relationship!

I think Attack of the Clones is still my least-favorite saga film, but Obi-Wan was charming as hell, I got more out of Anakin/Padme than I usually do, and the final battle was enjoyable as always (though the Yoda/Dooku fight has become more and more ridiculous to me with time).

Revenge of the Sith remained strong as always. You either buy into the tragedy or you don’t, I think. My wife and I both buy into it. Watching Return of the Jedi afterward provides a lovely bit of symmetry and a satisfying conclusion to the entirety of the saga, as well.

Interestingly, while The Force Awakens replicates so much of the previous films and nails the tone, on this viewing I found it to be rather peripheral and irrelevant (though still great fun). Then again, the same could be said for A New Hope or The Phantom Menace in isolation. We’ll have to see how the rest of this sequel trilogy goes.

All of the above is to say that changing viewing order did get me to rethink each of the films and their place in the larger saga. I think that the most logical viewing order remains either release date or sequential order, but I don’t begrudge the experimentation.

And if I wanted to do my own bit of experimental viewing order, that hopefully creates the most dramatic interconnection I could manage just by remixing the sequence, I think I’d go: IV, I, V, II, III, VI.

Dark Siders

I’m reading Lords of the Sith now, and I’m not a huge fan of it so far. It’s a pulpy action-adventure novel, but that shouldn’t necessarily dissuade me; I rather enjoyed the one-off adventures of Heir to the Jedi. I’ve still got a ways to go, so it’s probably unfair of me to form so harsh an impression so early, but this might be my least favorite book of the new canon that I’ve read so far (that tier would go From a Certain Point of View, then A New Dawn, then Heir to the Jedi, then Tarkin, and finally Lords of the Sith at the bottom). I think it’s the subject matter, and I think subject matter might explain why I was not especially fond of Tarkin as well (in part).

You see, while I like to see Star Wars stories that explore the Dark Side, and while I like powerful villains and complicated antiheroes, I still ultimately like to read stories about fundamentally good people. Sure, all people are flawed in some way. No one is perfect. But good people generally want to do the right thing, and generally try to make decisions that they believe are justified, and generally want to improve. I like to be able to cheer for the characters of a sci-fi adventure story especially; optimistic and escapist action is part of the draw for me. But Tarkin and Lords of the Sith focus on very bad people, and their opponents are morally compromised rebels. No one is any good. And you know that the bad people will win, and that even if their opponents could seize the day (they can’t, you know, because canon dictates otherwise), they still aren’t all that much better at the end of the day. In attempting to give a reason to root for the bad guys, the authors have let their opponents seem just as awful in many ways.

My favorite stories of bad guys in Star Wars typically at least have a strong heroic foil (e.g., the Thrawn books with Luke and company, Revenge of the Sith with Obi-Wan and Yoda, or Fatal Alliance with its eccentric band of heroes working against and at times with the Sith). So maybe I’d otherwise enjoy a one-off pulp adventure, but not when the “heroes” are evil Sith Lords bent on oppression and death; maybe I’d enjoy a lengthy pseudo-biography of a character if not a fascist thug like Tarkin.

Okay, so all that said, how do I explain my admiration for James Luceno’s Darth Plageuis? My suspicion is that Plageuis offered such a fascinating glimpse into the lives of otherwise mysterious characters, and the story was so well-told. It’s reasonable to assume that even my biases can be overcome with good enough storytelling. If nothing else, it had something interesting to say, and it offered a new and darkly disturbing perspective on familiar events. Tarkin, even though also by Luceno, just didn’t tell a significant story. Its scattering of backstory amid the pursuit of pirates did not particularly provide depth to Tarkin’s character so much as it did breadth. The Grand Moff seems just as much a fascist and just as much a psychopath to me as he did before I read the novel.

I don’t read just for escapism, but I admit that it is a primary motivator behind Star Wars reading. That said, I think I can accept a dark and challenging story even in that galaxy far, far away…so long as the story justifies the tone with something special.

Review: Tarkin

Tarkin (Star Wars)Tarkin by James Luceno

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tarkin fills in a lot of details about the life of Grand Moff Tarkin, while telling a fairly simple story set five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith: Tarkin’s personal starship is captured, and he must find and subdue the insurgent shipjackers responsible for the theft.

I’ve liked the Luceno Star Wars books I’ve read. I especially liked Darth Plagueis, which attempts a similar biographical overview of a major villain. Tarkin is, in many ways, a follow-up to that other book. But I did not love it.

Most principally, I believe that there are simply too many side stories, and many of those side stories, if developed more fully, would have been more interesting. A central mystery of the book is what Tarkin’s defining trial was as a young man, surviving on the wild Carrion Plateau of Eriadu. The reveal of Tarkin’s big shaping moment is saved for one of the final chapters of the book, and it’s underwhelming and fairly predictable. Not to mention that it is tied in a little too neatly with the resolution of the “present day” plot involving the shipjackers. If the whole story had just been about young Tarkin’s training, this could have been a very interesting book, perhaps something a little bit genre-defying. But there are still other interesting side stories that are not developed enough. Tarkin’s time during the Clone Wars, including his apparently merciless shutdown of the Confederacy’s Shadowfeed propaganda operation, or his pacification missions following the end of the wars seemed very intriguing, action-packed, and brutal. They would have made for great content. Tarkin’s years hunting pirates could have been cool, too, and rather swashbuckling. The few scenes set on Coruscant, with the bickering between the Joint Chiefs, were thrilling, and I would love to see more Imperial courtly intrigue. And maybe most of all, Palpatine, whom Luceno already developed so well in Darth Plagueis, continues to be doing fascinating things mostly off-screen. How much does Palpatine know of what’s going on? The few sections from his viewpoint suggest that he is more vulnerable than he lets on. We also get a tiny glimpse of what his larger plan for the galaxy is, but I would think it very interesting to know in what ways he intends to shape the galaxy.

In short, this book did not have enough focus, and what it did choose to focus on felt like the wrong moments.

I do believe that Luceno did a good job with tone, and much of the book feels clinically detached, a perfect representation of Tarkin’s frame of mind. But this is rather boring to read (and reminds me a bit of discussions as to whether Natalie Portman’s acting as Queen Amidala was wooden or if the character herself was supposed to be wooden). Similarly, the experience of reading the book is rather dour and dreary. Perfect for a novel following the technocratic villains of the galaxy. But I would have appreciated more heart. Rogue One demonstrated how we can see more of the Empire and even have a story where the Rebels lose while remaining focused on the good guys. To follow the band of shipjackers and more fully develop their passions, motivations, and personalities would have meant less Tarkin, but I think I would have been more emotionally invested (having someone to actually cheer on), and it would have been interesting to learn everything about Tarkin from the fear-struck perspective of the insurgents as they trade rumors and try to predict what he’ll do next.

There are a lot of fun references to the old EU (and especially Legends books by Luceno), and we do get some insight into what the inner workings of the Empire looked like. But Tarkin can be a bit of a slog, especially when compared to A New Dawn, which tackles similar themes and subject matter but does so much better.

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George Lucas, Star Wars, and Race

It is more difficult than it might seem to make a coherent and consistent statement about George Lucas’s views on race. This is, in part, because those views appear to be rather complicated, if not fully developed, and rather confused/confusing.

After the release of The Phantom Menace, there was of course some (often quite reasonable but sometimes hyperbolically pearl-clutching or bizarrely wrong) backlash to the minstrelsy evidenced in the hijinks and accent of Jar Jar Binks, the anti-Semitic stereotyping of Watto the Toydarian junk dealer, and the Asian caricatures imbued in the greedy Neimoidians like Nute Gunray (examples here, here, and here). But The Phantom Menace also brought us competent black heroes in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Jedi Master Mace Windu and Hugh Quarshie‘s Naboo Royal Guard Captain Panaka. The later prequel films broadened the previously limited (human) racial mix of Star Wars with the addition of prominent characters like Captain Typho, Queen Jamillia, and Jango Fett (played by Maori actor Temuera Morrison, who would also be the face of the clone troopers), as well as background parts like Bultar Swan and Depa Billaba. Thus Star Wars looked a little less white, with a range of characters with different ethnic backgrounds who could be heroes and villains, and yet that change came about along with some loaded ethnic stereotyping that hadn’t really been present in the films beforehand.

Of course, it’s easy to avoid ethnic stereotyping when the only humans in the room are white people (mostly men) speaking with American or British accents. In the classic trilogy, there was only Lando (Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker, though voiced by James Earl Jones when the mask was on, was of course portrayed, over the course of the films and their various editions, by David Prowse, Sebastian Shaw, and Hayden Christensen). There may have been people of color hidden as background actors in the streets of Cloud City, and there are a couple of black and Asian pilots who appear just long enough to blow up in the Battle of Endor, but Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian is the only prominent person of color in the entirety of the visible Star Wars galaxy throughout the original three movies.

Overall, this suggests growth on the part of George Lucas. Maybe he realized that representation of people from non-white ethnic backgrounds was important. Maybe he was just responding to critical and consumer complaints. I’m not sure if he really knows. One of the most awkward passages in Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays comes from an excerpt of an interview with George Lucas. Lucas says:

At one point in the original Star Wars, Han Solo was going to be black. I was in the casting, and one of the finalists was a black actor, and I just decided that I liked Harrison the best. It didn’t have to do with race at all. I had a lot of different ideas. At one point Luke, Leia, and Ben were all going to be little people, and we did screen tests to see if I could do that. At one point Luke and Leia were going to be Oriental. I played with various ethnic groups, but when there are four main characters, it seemed better to have them all be the same race. But I had been interested right from the very beginning to get ethnic diversity into the project. So when I got to adding the Lando character, who was not originally written as a black man, there was a chance to put in variety. You know, at the time Star Wars came out, a lot of critics attacked the film for not having one of the characters be a black person. They also said that it was a chauvinistic movie. And I thought, Wait a minute, Leia is not a man, she is tough and independent, how can that be chauvinistic? The film got attacked for everything.

I don’t exactly have graceful oratory ability, and I put my foot in my mouth rather often, so I’m sympathetic to the possibility that Lucas just did a really poor job of conveying what he meant. But I’m not quoting out of context–that’s the entirety of the excerpt provided. He reads as defensive to me. It certainly seems like any addition of diversity was specifically a response to criticism. And remember, The Annotated Screenplays were published in 1997, so Lucas had these thoughts as he was preparing for the prequel trilogy.

I also think those comments feel misguidedly progressive. I think George Lucas probably wanted (and wants) to do the right thing, but for some reason does not quite know how or know whom to ask for guidance. Ethnic backgrounds seem almost like tokenistic check-boxes to him. Lucas claims he always wanted diversity, but somehow he could only find room for one significant non-white role in the entirety of the original trilogy? And why, exactly, did it “seem better” to have all the protagonists of the same race? Again, I think he wants to do the right thing, but it really feels like he misses the point of the criticism and rather belligerently dismisses the idea that there could have been anything that could have been improved with his creative choices or casting decisions.

Look, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Lucas (even though I know it might be hard to believe, especially if you could see everything I said about the prequel trilogy as an adolescent). He created a fantasy world that means so much to me and millions of others. He’s a talented visionary, but he has flaws. Some of those flaws–for instance, as a writer–he has openly acknowledged. But it can be very hard for people to admit to flaws regarding race and sex because it is really an ugly, yucky feeling to admit that something you did is racist or sexist. Racist or sexist is coded, correctly, to mean bad, but the reality is that we can all do bad things and think bad thoughts. We have to strive to be better people; none of us is born perfect. I certainly struggle with the reality that sometimes I do things that are racist or sexist. It can be easier just to defend yourself, to deny, rather than to recognize the flaw and work to improve. I think because George Lucas appears to have been so defensive, he set himself up for other failings even as he made improvements–as evidenced by the presence of a Jar Jar and a Watto next to a Mace and a Panaka.

In that light, Disney’s new ownership of Star Wars is positive. It seems like Kathleen Kennedy and crew have given real thought to those flaws, even while having a great history with and intimate understanding of the intellectual property. And so we continue to see more people of color and more women (and sometimes, though sadly still rarely, women of color) in new installments; we even have actual Hispanic actors in Star Wars, something surprisingly lacking for decades now. The Star Wars universe continues to feel truly more diverse, and not just with the inclusion of more exotic aliens.